Four years ago, when the Winter Olympics were hosted in South Korea, it fell at the same time as the Lunar New Year Holiday. An important family event that demands careful preparation. Watching and helping my in-laws for our own feast led to quite interesting comparisons in my mind, as I considered all the effort people go through for the family gatherings. In no way are the characters in this story based on actual people in my life, but I hope some of this can help us appreciate what our loved ones go through while preparing for us to have good food and family time with them. (In some ways, this could be re-titled as "My Ode to the Ajumma".)
Lunar New Year Olympics
Some say these ladies have spent their whole lives in preparation for the days ahead, and they'd be right. As with this moment right now, the mothers/aunties/wives of South Korea: the Ajumma, rise with the sun, or before it, to gather their materials for the impending event. Those living in the countryside either take their car or, more conventionally, make the long trek by foot, tugging their wheeled collapsible shopping bag behind them. The others, in cities, use this time to practice their authority as elders in the subway; carefully jabbing their elbows into as many bystanders as possible; successfully securing the prime empty seat: on the end, where the ventilation and the exit are theirs. It may be marked pink with a "P", to represent a woman’s engorged belly, but she earned it back when mothering was hardest and without her, there wouldn’t be anyone looking for that priority spot.
Once at the market, the acquisition of the correct amenities comes with the seasoning of time and practice. These days, one can simply find the essentials at a local supermarket, but the pros know that with convenience comes inferior quality; in product and in taste. The open market is the only place to buy authentically preserved tofu that will mix just right with the minced pork and green onion she will mould into that circle of dough and deftly fold round to mimic a rippling crescent, or a baby in a bonnet. (Beautifully representative of the handsome son she was destined to bear.)
Later, always too late, the daughter-in-law arrives and is set to work finishing off any steaming, stewing and blanching that must wait for the last possible moment. Hours pass with the father and son in front of the television; peeled fruit and nuts displayed only a little stretch away.
Doorbell rings: ready. Husband opens the door: set. Shoes are removed and socks slip over the threshold: go! “Welcome! Happy Lunar New Year!” “Oh, you’ve gained/lost weight!” “You look tired/rested.” “You’re later/earlier than expected.” “The traffic was terrible – cars, cars, cars!” “Look how the little one has grown.” “Grandmother/Grandfather, please sit down.” Bow, money. Bow, money. Bow, money. Plates, bowls, chopsticks, spoons; every cupboard bare and rearranged onto tables in the living room. All sit. Pray/meditate. Slurp, chat, slosh, spill, cry, mop, reassure, eat, praise, refill, eat. Cleared away in 5 minutes, leaving the men back in place with their entertainment and refreshments. In the background, the Big Ajuma delegates, cracks her back, thumps her thighs to circulate blood, then sets herself up at the sink to wash the dishes, one by one.
The next market day, the Ajuma gather to restock. “My daughter in law wouldn’t stop eating the pears. I think she’s pregnant again.” “My son is fat. His wife must not be cooking real food for him.” “My husband had the news on during dinner. His father wouldn’t stop talking about the president.” “We ran out of dumpling pastry. I had to stop stuffing and go to the market!”
“On Lunar New Year’s day? But nothing would be open.”
“The day before.”
“Ah! You should make it fresh that day.” “But then she wouldn’t have been able to buy more.” “You should make the pastry yourself.” “The premade is just as good.”
On the ride/walk home, our Ajuma lifts her head high. A good performance. A job well done. And Thanksgiving Harvest Holiday to prepare for.